Parents' fighting 'terrifies' this baby

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 31, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hello Barbara

I wanted to ask you something that I am too ashamed to ask my son's doctor.

My husband and I were seeking a divorce, and I found out I was three months pregnant. He told me to abort, but I didn't. I cried my entire pregnancy. Now my son is 10 months old, and we fight almost every day. He is right there, and we are screaming, yelling, and I am crying. My son looks terrified and starts crying -- he even wakes up crying when we are fighting. Now, even if we are not, he still wakes up terrified. How am I harming my child? I am telling my husband we need to divorce; he doesn't believe in it when a baby is involved. Please help - I really don't know what we are doing to my precious boy. Thank you so much.

From: Norin, Plano, TX

Oh, Norin, it breaks my heart to hear you describe your little guy as "terrified." That your husband believed in divorce before there was a child but not now, sadly, is setting up your son for a negative outcome. You are already seeing it. Of course, divorce is not the only solution; keep reading.

Research shows that even babies are harmed when parents fight in front of them. In his book, "And Baby Makes Three," John Gottman writes that babies are "profoundly" affected by parents' fighting. Here's one very concrete reason why: it raises baby's blood pressure.

Over the course of childhood, exposure to parental fighting can lead to a range of negative outcomes that include aggression, withdrawal, depression, irritability, psychosomatic illness, regression, sleeplessness, insecurity about relationships, and inability to manage conflict.

Fighting doesn't have to be physical or loud (although that is always worse in terms of outcome for children). Infants are so closely attuned to their caregivers that they pick up on facial expressions that signal distress and on our moods. If you are always tense, worrying about the next marital outburst, your baby senses and absorbs your stress, according to research by Arminta Jacobson, a professor at the University of North Texas. In fact, she's the director of the Center for Parent Education at UNT, which is in Denton. I know distances can be deceiving in Texas, but isn't that near Plano? That Center might be a really good resource for you, both in terms of some counseling (divorce is NOT the only solution) and parenting.

Dr. Phil (not someone I usually quote, I know) tried to raise awareness of the dangers of fighting in front of kids. He calls the problem a "silent epidemic" because people are afraid to talk about. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, devoted readers, I don't want anyone to read this and think I'm saying you can never disagree with your spouse in front of your children. The problem is not that parents fight at all, it's the way they fight. If parents repeatedly put each other down or put the kids in the middle -- and please notice the use of the word, "repeatedly" -- children feel threatened, insecure, and unhappy. On the other hand, if parents are supportive and tolerant of their differences and able to resolve them respectfully, it can provides a positive role model for conflict resolution.

But I would say this: If you're reading this and it's making you wonder about the way you and your spouse fight in front of the kids, it's time for counseling.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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15 comments so far...
  1. Staying together for the sake of the baby is probably the worst thing you can do for your child. My parents got divorced when I was 12 or 13 years old! I knew that it was coming for years before and even to this day I had wish for everyone's happiness they did it long before they actually did. They tried to stay together "for the sake of the children". Sad. No one comes out a better person for staying. It really is no reason to stay together. It sounds like everyone would be happier if you parted ways. You need to think of your child and his happiness. If you stay together and fight like you do, your child will see that marriage is not a good thing and he will feel resentment towards one or both of you down the road.

    Posted by JD January 31, 11 07:23 AM
  1. If you think your infant is terrified now, what do you think will happen when he gets older and can actually understand what you're saying? It's one thing to make the commitment to stay together for the kid (dead wrong, in my personal experience) but for pete's sake, at least take the fighting out of earshot! You're in Texas, not the ice cold north - go outside to the driveway if you have to argue.

    Posted by Q January 31, 11 09:14 AM
  1. I agree with Barbara's advice, but you can STILL get a divorce. It seems as if you were already going to get one when you became pregnant with your son, and while sometimes having a kid can change the relationship dynamic, it doesn't seem to be the case in your relationship. So while you definitely can use Barbara's advice to try to help your son, please don't rule out divorce to help yourself!

    Posted by sabend January 31, 11 09:41 AM
  1. It is better to be FROM a broken home than to be IN one.

    Posted by cause_and_effect January 31, 11 10:23 AM
  1. What a sad letter. I'm guessing the letter writer really knows the answer to her question but needs some moral support.

    He may be terrified now, but please also remember that your marriage is the role model on which you son will base all his future relationships. Please seek help in your area. Don't be afraid to talk to the people who can help you. I'm a pediatric nurse, and believe me, we've seen it all.

    Posted by ash January 31, 11 11:21 AM
  1. And LW, it doesn't matter whether your husband "believes" in divorce when there is a baby or not. He doesn't need to agree to it, or give permission for a divorce. One person -- you -- can simply decide to divorce, and file for divorce. Your husband can't stop that even if he claims he doesn't "believe" in divorce, and even if he gives you the bogus excuse that he refuses to "give" you a divorce. Doesn't work that way.

    Your baby is terrified. Your baby is learning to be scared of the world. Your baby is learning he can't trust the adults in his life to keep him safe. Do you think that's a solid foundation for a happy, well-adjusted life? No. It isn't. Do the right thing for your child. Get him out of this broken home now.

    Posted by jjlen January 31, 11 03:57 PM
  1. Whether your husband wants a divorce or not, you can still seek one. Texas is a no fault state, which means you can file and get a divorce so long as you've lived in Texas for the last 6 months. You don't have to cite anything but an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, which, quite frankly, your marriage could be the definition of. You don't have to have your husband's approval which makes me wonder why you're really holding back.

    If you are going to divorce, now is the time. An older child is going to have a much more difficult time with divorce. Your baby won't even remember it.

    Posted by Linney January 31, 11 05:18 PM
  1. You were both ready to divorce 16 months ago, nothing has changed (and maybe things have gotten worse), you fight every day, and for what? Because your husband wants to stay "because a baby is involved"? In this case, Norin, divorce sounds like the best answer, for the sake of your child, you, and your husband.

    Like JD, my siblings and I were thrilled when my parents finally divorced. Kids are not stupid; they know that their parents are unhappy even if you try to hide it. And kids could end up feeling guilty if they know they are the only reason their parents stayed together.

    It is much better to have two happy parents who live apart than two unhappy parents who live together.

    Good luck to you.

    Posted by mk January 31, 11 07:16 PM
  1. I'm guessing the mother might not be able to support herself and her baby on her own. Social support services in Texas are very far from adequate. I know, I grew up there and many of my friends and family were single mothers. You just can't support yourself without a job or income. So what I'd say is that the best thing you can do is to fight less while looking into some shelter and other living arrangements. There have been studies that show that as long as parents are married and don't openly fight, even if parents do not really get along, the outcomes for kids are preferable than divorce. This was the case in my family where my parents were very unhappily married. I had better emotional health, and access to better educational opportunities than my siblings. The reason is because I went to college before my parents divorced and money became extremely tight. I just don't think it's right for posters to encourage divorce without knowing all the facts.

    The one thing we know for sure is that the mother has one thing under her control--her temper. She needs to decide not to be goaded into any more shouting matches. If she is young, this will be extremely hard to learn. I wish her luck with that first step.

    Posted by momof2 January 31, 11 10:53 PM
  1. Divorce can be extremely traumatic to families, especially children. My children’s picture book, takes us through a myriad of emotions that two children, Stephen and Alex experience through this tumultuous period. The children, especially Alex gives an extremely candid and honest account of the day to day trauma, the hostility and at times the many poignant memories that he has. Living with Mom, Spending Time with Dad also addresses the concerns and anguish of being torn between two parents. Throughout the story there is that underlying hope that everything will turn out alright and everyone will be back in their original comfort zone.

    Posted by RobleyBlake February 1, 11 05:36 PM
  1. My sister is in one of these "marriages". I told her not to marry him, after they had a daughter together, but she did and has had 3 more children with him! She now finds herself unable to divorce him, because she is an older woman without any educational degrees, and hasn't worked in years, so has no hope of supporting herself. Personally, I think she should divorce him anyhow. Their kids are approaching the teens and they are all suffering from the exposure to their parents fights, their fathers angry nature, and her inability to make life better for everyone. She should have gotten divorced years ago...I have told her my feelings, even my very catholic mother advised her to. I don't think she is staying for the kids, because that family is very painful to be around, much less live in, yet she keeps making the kids live the pain.

    Posted by fed up February 13, 12 07:43 AM
  1. I grew up in a house of chaos and fighting. I can tell you that it leaves a lasting impression. You grow up knowing how to fight with someone but never knowing how to compromise, how to apologize and how to resolve differences. Trying to learn them as an adult has been a humbling experience to say the least. You grow up thinking that all relationships are going to be volatile.

    For the sake of your child, you should walk away now and make the resolve that no matter what happens, you won't fight with your hopefully ex husband at all about anything in front of your child. If he wants to rant and rave like a lunatic, you pledge never ever to go with it. Always remain calm. Find your inner calm. This is how you will raise your child and this is the example that you need to be setting.

    Posted by From one mom to another March 22, 12 02:44 PM
  1. PLEASE: get a divorce before the child gets old enough to understand. It's already getting late. That's what I did and he is great. In my case the father also didn't care to have a baby, so he chose not to see the him ever at all after the divorce. I still think this is better than two fighting parents. He is now older and very happy and secure, very social and smart. He doesn't know him, and there's no turmoil in his life. Better to have one solid and calm parent than two fighting parents. Look at Obama-he had only one parent and grew up to be President and a good husband/parent. Proof that only one good parent and a sense of security is all a child needs. If you can't support yourself now, you will figure out a way. Your child is more important. Plus, there will be child support from the father to help. Fighting not only harms the child, it harms you, which in turn also harms the child. Put your child's needs first.

    Posted by divorced him when he was a baby June 9, 12 06:40 AM
  1. I grew up in a war in my home It was the 50's, wonderful mother with no income or control over her fertility , married to a man who preferred his friends in the bar to his family. I NEVER saw my parents show any affection. But they went on to have 6 miserable children, all depressed alchoholics. I wasn't valued by my father.
    I married and divorced abusive men , my children are estranged from the family, Since my son (44) told me last year he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a neighbor 32 years ago, The last thing he said to me was " the only thing I learned from you was to let others abuse me "
    I wake up everyday wishing I had never been born. I laid in bed and cried for months. I used to be social and positive. Now I am bitter and hate people.

    If you want a miserable life and children, then stay with this man..

    My life has been a waste, I haven't seen my son's 4 boys in years.

    I asked my Mom why she didn't abort me when my father already had a wife and 2 girls he didn't want, and why she had 5 more miserable kids. She said he came home drunk to " get his moneys worth".

    I hope you have family support to leave. I didn't.

    Posted by Susan Thurston June 9, 12 06:12 PM
  1. Two adults who love a child should be able to make changes and come together to build a loving and peaceful home for their child. But it takes desire, courage, and professional help. I highly recommend the book, Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. And yes, shouting and tears come from violent speech and ARE violent, that's why your baby son is terrified.

    Confront your husband with an offer for both of you to give up your quest for control and to be "right" and to work together whatever it takes for 6 months. Then find a therapist and get help to keep that promise. If either of you is not willing to do this, the other one can't create peace alone. Good luck. Your baby son deserves the best efforts of both of you.

    Posted by Great Gramma who has seen it all June 10, 12 02:58 PM
 
15 comments so far...
  1. Staying together for the sake of the baby is probably the worst thing you can do for your child. My parents got divorced when I was 12 or 13 years old! I knew that it was coming for years before and even to this day I had wish for everyone's happiness they did it long before they actually did. They tried to stay together "for the sake of the children". Sad. No one comes out a better person for staying. It really is no reason to stay together. It sounds like everyone would be happier if you parted ways. You need to think of your child and his happiness. If you stay together and fight like you do, your child will see that marriage is not a good thing and he will feel resentment towards one or both of you down the road.

    Posted by JD January 31, 11 07:23 AM
  1. If you think your infant is terrified now, what do you think will happen when he gets older and can actually understand what you're saying? It's one thing to make the commitment to stay together for the kid (dead wrong, in my personal experience) but for pete's sake, at least take the fighting out of earshot! You're in Texas, not the ice cold north - go outside to the driveway if you have to argue.

    Posted by Q January 31, 11 09:14 AM
  1. I agree with Barbara's advice, but you can STILL get a divorce. It seems as if you were already going to get one when you became pregnant with your son, and while sometimes having a kid can change the relationship dynamic, it doesn't seem to be the case in your relationship. So while you definitely can use Barbara's advice to try to help your son, please don't rule out divorce to help yourself!

    Posted by sabend January 31, 11 09:41 AM
  1. It is better to be FROM a broken home than to be IN one.

    Posted by cause_and_effect January 31, 11 10:23 AM
  1. What a sad letter. I'm guessing the letter writer really knows the answer to her question but needs some moral support.

    He may be terrified now, but please also remember that your marriage is the role model on which you son will base all his future relationships. Please seek help in your area. Don't be afraid to talk to the people who can help you. I'm a pediatric nurse, and believe me, we've seen it all.

    Posted by ash January 31, 11 11:21 AM
  1. And LW, it doesn't matter whether your husband "believes" in divorce when there is a baby or not. He doesn't need to agree to it, or give permission for a divorce. One person -- you -- can simply decide to divorce, and file for divorce. Your husband can't stop that even if he claims he doesn't "believe" in divorce, and even if he gives you the bogus excuse that he refuses to "give" you a divorce. Doesn't work that way.

    Your baby is terrified. Your baby is learning to be scared of the world. Your baby is learning he can't trust the adults in his life to keep him safe. Do you think that's a solid foundation for a happy, well-adjusted life? No. It isn't. Do the right thing for your child. Get him out of this broken home now.

    Posted by jjlen January 31, 11 03:57 PM
  1. Whether your husband wants a divorce or not, you can still seek one. Texas is a no fault state, which means you can file and get a divorce so long as you've lived in Texas for the last 6 months. You don't have to cite anything but an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, which, quite frankly, your marriage could be the definition of. You don't have to have your husband's approval which makes me wonder why you're really holding back.

    If you are going to divorce, now is the time. An older child is going to have a much more difficult time with divorce. Your baby won't even remember it.

    Posted by Linney January 31, 11 05:18 PM
  1. You were both ready to divorce 16 months ago, nothing has changed (and maybe things have gotten worse), you fight every day, and for what? Because your husband wants to stay "because a baby is involved"? In this case, Norin, divorce sounds like the best answer, for the sake of your child, you, and your husband.

    Like JD, my siblings and I were thrilled when my parents finally divorced. Kids are not stupid; they know that their parents are unhappy even if you try to hide it. And kids could end up feeling guilty if they know they are the only reason their parents stayed together.

    It is much better to have two happy parents who live apart than two unhappy parents who live together.

    Good luck to you.

    Posted by mk January 31, 11 07:16 PM
  1. I'm guessing the mother might not be able to support herself and her baby on her own. Social support services in Texas are very far from adequate. I know, I grew up there and many of my friends and family were single mothers. You just can't support yourself without a job or income. So what I'd say is that the best thing you can do is to fight less while looking into some shelter and other living arrangements. There have been studies that show that as long as parents are married and don't openly fight, even if parents do not really get along, the outcomes for kids are preferable than divorce. This was the case in my family where my parents were very unhappily married. I had better emotional health, and access to better educational opportunities than my siblings. The reason is because I went to college before my parents divorced and money became extremely tight. I just don't think it's right for posters to encourage divorce without knowing all the facts.

    The one thing we know for sure is that the mother has one thing under her control--her temper. She needs to decide not to be goaded into any more shouting matches. If she is young, this will be extremely hard to learn. I wish her luck with that first step.

    Posted by momof2 January 31, 11 10:53 PM
  1. Divorce can be extremely traumatic to families, especially children. My children’s picture book, takes us through a myriad of emotions that two children, Stephen and Alex experience through this tumultuous period. The children, especially Alex gives an extremely candid and honest account of the day to day trauma, the hostility and at times the many poignant memories that he has. Living with Mom, Spending Time with Dad also addresses the concerns and anguish of being torn between two parents. Throughout the story there is that underlying hope that everything will turn out alright and everyone will be back in their original comfort zone.

    Posted by RobleyBlake February 1, 11 05:36 PM
  1. My sister is in one of these "marriages". I told her not to marry him, after they had a daughter together, but she did and has had 3 more children with him! She now finds herself unable to divorce him, because she is an older woman without any educational degrees, and hasn't worked in years, so has no hope of supporting herself. Personally, I think she should divorce him anyhow. Their kids are approaching the teens and they are all suffering from the exposure to their parents fights, their fathers angry nature, and her inability to make life better for everyone. She should have gotten divorced years ago...I have told her my feelings, even my very catholic mother advised her to. I don't think she is staying for the kids, because that family is very painful to be around, much less live in, yet she keeps making the kids live the pain.

    Posted by fed up February 13, 12 07:43 AM
  1. I grew up in a house of chaos and fighting. I can tell you that it leaves a lasting impression. You grow up knowing how to fight with someone but never knowing how to compromise, how to apologize and how to resolve differences. Trying to learn them as an adult has been a humbling experience to say the least. You grow up thinking that all relationships are going to be volatile.

    For the sake of your child, you should walk away now and make the resolve that no matter what happens, you won't fight with your hopefully ex husband at all about anything in front of your child. If he wants to rant and rave like a lunatic, you pledge never ever to go with it. Always remain calm. Find your inner calm. This is how you will raise your child and this is the example that you need to be setting.

    Posted by From one mom to another March 22, 12 02:44 PM
  1. PLEASE: get a divorce before the child gets old enough to understand. It's already getting late. That's what I did and he is great. In my case the father also didn't care to have a baby, so he chose not to see the him ever at all after the divorce. I still think this is better than two fighting parents. He is now older and very happy and secure, very social and smart. He doesn't know him, and there's no turmoil in his life. Better to have one solid and calm parent than two fighting parents. Look at Obama-he had only one parent and grew up to be President and a good husband/parent. Proof that only one good parent and a sense of security is all a child needs. If you can't support yourself now, you will figure out a way. Your child is more important. Plus, there will be child support from the father to help. Fighting not only harms the child, it harms you, which in turn also harms the child. Put your child's needs first.

    Posted by divorced him when he was a baby June 9, 12 06:40 AM
  1. I grew up in a war in my home It was the 50's, wonderful mother with no income or control over her fertility , married to a man who preferred his friends in the bar to his family. I NEVER saw my parents show any affection. But they went on to have 6 miserable children, all depressed alchoholics. I wasn't valued by my father.
    I married and divorced abusive men , my children are estranged from the family, Since my son (44) told me last year he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a neighbor 32 years ago, The last thing he said to me was " the only thing I learned from you was to let others abuse me "
    I wake up everyday wishing I had never been born. I laid in bed and cried for months. I used to be social and positive. Now I am bitter and hate people.

    If you want a miserable life and children, then stay with this man..

    My life has been a waste, I haven't seen my son's 4 boys in years.

    I asked my Mom why she didn't abort me when my father already had a wife and 2 girls he didn't want, and why she had 5 more miserable kids. She said he came home drunk to " get his moneys worth".

    I hope you have family support to leave. I didn't.

    Posted by Susan Thurston June 9, 12 06:12 PM
  1. Two adults who love a child should be able to make changes and come together to build a loving and peaceful home for their child. But it takes desire, courage, and professional help. I highly recommend the book, Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. And yes, shouting and tears come from violent speech and ARE violent, that's why your baby son is terrified.

    Confront your husband with an offer for both of you to give up your quest for control and to be "right" and to work together whatever it takes for 6 months. Then find a therapist and get help to keep that promise. If either of you is not willing to do this, the other one can't create peace alone. Good luck. Your baby son deserves the best efforts of both of you.

    Posted by Great Gramma who has seen it all June 10, 12 02:58 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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